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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 20 Feb 2007

Vol. 631 No. 6

Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2007: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am very pleased to introduce the second of two Bills intended to implement the largest social welfare package in the history of the State at €1.41 billion, announced in last December's budget. This substantial investment brings total expenditure on social welfare in this year to €15.3 billion, or almost €1 for every €3 of current Government expenditure. Ireland is now making solid and steady progress in tackling the core issues that can blight people's lives, blunt opportunities and leave some vulnerable and marginalised in society.

As well as income support improvements of over €970 million which took effect from January, another €430 million is being directed to support a range of significant reform measures, representing nearly one third of the total package. These include confronting and tackling remaining child poverty, increasing income supports for all pensioners, recognising and supporting carers and those with disabilities, as well as increasing the status and incomes of women. These are major structural reforms which, when taken with a number of other reforms implemented in areas such as pensions and lone parent allowances, will contribute greatly to the overall policy reform agenda that I have been pursuing for the last two years. These reforms on child poverty, carer's allowance, women's incomes and pensions are about more than just increasing incomes. They are important and necessary structural reforms that create change, open up fresh opportunities and deliver enlightened social policies.

On various occasions I have described child poverty as an unacceptable blight on society. Childhood deprivation can leave lasting marks on children by impeding their development and limiting their life chances. It is not just the child who suffers. Society also loses, as its children are its wealth. Since I began in this portfolio, I have been determined to make a lasting impact on the problem by bringing forward the reforms and targeted measures that reach to the very core of the issue.

In recent years we have lifted more than 250,000 people, including 100,000 children, out of poverty, but we still have a distance to travel. It behoves all of us to redouble our efforts and complete the task. Prior to budget 2007, resources were aimed at alleviating child poverty through substantial increases in the universal child benefit payments, rather than through increases in the qualified child allowances, which are paid to recipients of social welfare payments. In January of this year, I increased the qualified child allowance, which used to be known as the child dependant allowance, for the first time since 1994. The increase in the allowance to a new single high rate of €22 per week has benefited over 340,000 children by targeting those in poorer households.

The shift towards child benefit has been significant in tackling disincentives to employment. In 1994, child benefit represented just 27% of the combined child benefit-qualified child payment for a four-child family. Today, child benefit accounts for over 65% of that combined payment. When a welfare recipient moves into full-time employment, his or her family now loses less than 35% of its child income support through loss of qualified child payments. In this Bill, I am increasing child benefit rates by €10 per month. Over 560,000 families, or approximately 1,134,000 children, will benefit from the increase, which comes into effect in April and will apply to all children. It is expected that expenditure on the child benefit scheme will be €2.15 billion in 2007.

It is well established that child poverty is especially prevalent among the families of those on the one-parent family payment. Last March, I launched a Government discussion paper, Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents, which proposed an expansion of the availability and range of education and training opportunities for lone parents, an extension of the national employment action plan to focus on lone parents and the introduction of a new social assistance payment for low income families with young children. One of the report's proposals was that the upper income limit for the proposed new social assistance payment should be €400 per week. I increased the upper weekly income limits for the one-parent family payment from €293 to €375 in budget 2006. I am delivering on this element of the proposal by increasing the upper income limit to €400 per week in this Bill.

The long-term aim of the proposed new social assistance payment, which is being developed by officials in the Department of Social and Family Affairs, is to help people to achieve financial independence by enabling them to enter the labour force, which offers the best way out of poverty and social exclusion. I fully realise that the proposed new payment cannot be introduced without the development of co-ordinated supports and services by other Departments and agencies. For that reason, the Government has instructed the senior officials group on social inclusion to draw up an implementation plan to progress the non-income recommendations to facilitate the introduction of the new payment scheme.

I have taken the opportunity presented by the budget to address the earnings limits for recipients of deserted wives benefit, which is an issue that has been raised with me by several Members of this House. In response to the Deputies' representations, I have decided to introduce a new single earnings limit of €20,000 gross, even though the scheme has been closed to new applicants since January 1997. In addition, I am providing in the Bill that when claimants' earnings exceed the new limit, they will be entitled to a new half-rate transitional payment for six months to ease the impact of losing their entitlement to the payment. Up to 2,300 recipients of deserted wives benefit may benefit from the revisions to the scheme, which will bring it more into line with other social welfare schemes.

Deputies will recall that in the Social Welfare Act 2006, I made significant progress towards achieving the Government's commitment to increase the qualified adult allowance for the spouses and partners of contributory pensioners to the level of the State non-contributory pension. Since January, the budget increase of €23.70 per week in the qualified adult payment has benefited approximately 35,000 couples. That increase brings the rate of qualified adult allowance payments for those aged 66 years and over to 86.5% of the target rate referred to in the Government commitment. There is now a €60 million commitment to reach the target rate within the next three years. This Bill includes the provisions necessary to implement in new cases from September, the direct payment of increases for qualified adults to the qualified adult for the duration of the entitlement of the State pensioner. It will remain open to any qualified adult to continue to have his or her portion of the pension paid jointly with the personal portion of the pension, if that is his or her preferred option.

I have said many times that this country's social welfare system should evolve to reflect the social changes of recent years. The system needs to keep pace with changes in working and living conditions, particularly those of women. Accordingly, I propose to reform significantly the way spouses are assessed as qualified adults in a range of social assistance schemes. Women are generally involved in these instances. The assessment procedures for many schemes are predicated on the outmoded notion of a "qualified adult", with the woman in the relationship involved in ongoing part-time and low-paid work. As such assumptions are increasingly outmoded in our modern society, more enlightened social policies are needed.

I propose to remove the differential disregards from employment income which apply to couples on assistance schemes and to assess both members of a couple in a similar manner with common disregards and assessments applying to both. I will remove the poverty traps in the current method of assessment, which arise from the way the current disregard operates. At certain income levels, if a woman increases her income from part-time employment to more than the current disregard of €100 per week, her spouse can lose €1.20 from his jobseeker's allowance for every €1 she earns in excess of €100. Such a situation, which represents a withdrawal rate of 120% in respect of income, has no place in a modern labour market.

Increases in labour market participation will be rewarded under the proposed reform. This will allow women to move beyond the occupational cul-de-sac of long-term part-time employment with earnings below €100 per week. The current position whereby it is more advantageous for the half of a couple who undertakes part-time work to be a qualified adult will be removed. Both partners will be able to claim jobseeker's allowance in their own right, as long as they satisfy the usual conditions. They will receive the same rate of payment as a couple where one is a claimant and the other is a qualified adult. This will facilitate women, in particular, to claim jobseeker's allowance in their own right and access the accompanying range of employment supports and training opportunities. As part of this reform, I will increase the daily disregard of €12.70 from earned income from employment to €20. I will extend the disregard to all customers with such income.

This proposal removes the anomaly whereby parents of qualified children cannot avail of the disregard. It further strengthens the incentive for labour market participation by increasing family income when children are involved. The complexities I have mentioned mean there is potential for some couples to be less well-off under the proposed reform. They will not be less well-off, however, because the Department of Social and Family Affairs will operate a transitional saver system to protect the level of income they have at present from a combination of jobseeker's allowance and employment income. I am confident that the proposals will reduce significantly the complexity in the system and recognise, encourage and reward increased labour market participation.

As carers play a valuable and much appreciated role in our society, it is important that we support and care for them. Since the Government took office in 1997, it has been committed to supporting care in the community to the maximum extent possible. Over that period, weekly payment rates to carers have been greatly increased, qualifying conditions for carer's allowance have been significantly eased, coverage of the scheme has been extended and new schemes such as carer's benefit and the respite care grant have been introduced and extended. As a result of these improvements, almost 28,500 carers now receive either carer's allowance or carer's benefit. Such carers receive a respite care grant, as do approximately 10,000 other carers. Our commitment to carers was further reinforced in the national partnership agreement, Towards 2016, which contains significant commitments in the area of caring. Work is progressing on the development of a national carer's strategy, which will focus on supporting informal and family carers in the community. It is hoped that the strategy will be finalised by the end of the year.

As I have said on many occasions, the primary objective of the social welfare system is to provide income support. As a general rule, just one weekly social welfare payment is payable to an individual. In practice, people who qualify for two social welfare payments always receive the higher payment to which they are entitled. I am aware that this causes particular concern for people in receipt of one social welfare payment when they become carers.

The Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs has made some specific and sensible recommendations in this regard. I have responded by introducing in this Bill a fundamental reform in relation to payments to carers. From September, people in receipt of certain other social welfare payments, who also provide full-time care and attention to a person, will be able to retain their main welfare payment and receive another payment, subject to their means, up to half the rate of carer's allowance. Abolishing the old rule that a person cannot receive two welfare payments means that, for the first time, people who are caring will have some real recognition of their caring duties.

I am also including in the Bill provision for an increase of €300 in the rate of the respite care grant to €1,500 from June 2007. This will allow up to 40,000 carers to have a well-deserved break from their caring duties. The full package of measures for carers which I included in budget 2007 will cost in excess of €107 million in a full year. We have travelled some distance in recognising and acknowledging the significant contribution carers make in looking after people in their own homes and communities. Our next step forward will be to achieve our vision of a co-ordinated, comprehensive, accessible and sustainable system of delivering services and supports in the community to people who need care. At the same time we will continue to support and reward carers and ensure that we care for the carers.

The Bill gives effect to a number of improvements to the supplementary welfare allowance rent supplement scheme as part of the overall supplement package announced in budget 2007. These include an extension of the qualifying conditions and an easing of the rent supplement means test. The key objectives of the changes are to simplify the means test, so that a rent supplement recipient can judge the impact of an offer of work, and address disincentives and eliminate poverty traps faced by rent supplement recipients seeking to increase their hours of work or wishing to take up full-time employment. I am also making provision whereby rent supplement may be withheld in respect of accommodation which fails to meet local authority housing standards and to allow rent supplement to be refused in respect of private rental accommodation located in specified areas of regeneration identified by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

This latter measure supports the State's significant investment on regeneration in areas such as Ballymun. The objective is to achieve a better balance between owner-occupied and rented accommodation in these particular localities. In taking this approach, provision is made to protect existing tenants.

I am also taking the opportunity in the Bill to bring forward enabling legislation which will help to give effect to the Government decision to transfer certain income support and maintenance scheme functions from the Health Service Executive to my Department. At present, the SWA scheme is delivered by some 700 community welfare officers, CWOs, 59 superintendent community welfare officers and supporting clerical staff in the community welfare service of the HSE. The Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 currently stipulates that HSE staff determine entitlement to social welfare allowance.

The legislation I am now bringing forward is a technical change which is necessary to ensure that CWOs may continue to administer the scheme when they transfer out of the HSE to my Department and will come into operation by means of a commencement order. The legislation required for the transfer of functions will be prepared later this year following full consultation with staff and other stakeholders. The HSE's community welfare service is responsive and flexible in meeting needs and I will be ensuring that these attributes are preserved and built upon as part of the transfer process.

The transfer of functions presents fundamental reform and developmental opportunities for a fully integrated and enhanced income support system, including the restructuring and integration of income support services within one entity. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for those within the CWS and my own Department in supporting those most disadvantaged in society. I regard the transfer of functions as a positive way forward and I am confident that it will be embraced by all as the transfer programme progresses in the coming months.

The Government is concerned about retirement income in general, now and in the future. I do not need to remind the House of the demographic pressures our pensions system will face in the future. Thankfully, unlike other countries, our position will remain favourable for a number of years yet. It is important that we use the time we have available to act now to find the solutions for tomorrow. Everyone is entitled to adequate income, dignity and security in their older years. I am determined that we work towards delivering adequate retirement income to all our citizens which is financially, economically and socially sustainable.

I was very pleased at the prominence afforded to pensions in the social partnership negotiations for Towards 2016 and the final agreement features a number of commitments in this area. As part of the agreement, the Government is committed to publishing a Green Paper on pensions outlining the major policy choices, the challenges in this area and the views of the social partners. Following a consultation process, the Government will respond to the consultations by developing a framework for comprehensively addressing the pensions agenda over the long term. I am confident that the forthcoming Green Paper will offer options for reform — for both State and supplementary pensions — that are sensible and realistic.

I view this Green Paper as the beginning of the end of a process of examination, consideration and national debate. While we face a difficult challenge in securing agreement on a way forward, I am confident that the process will deliver a system that will command broad acceptance and provide the way for people to accumulate adequate resources for their retirement. Work on drafting the Green Paper is progressing well and I am confident it will be completed on schedule by the end of March.

I will now outline to the House the main provisions of the Bill which includes new measures and amends the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, the Pensions Act 1990 and a small number of other Acts.

Sections 1 and 2 contain the usual provisions for the Short Title, citation and commencement of the Bill, and the definition of certain terms used throughout the Bill. Section 3 contains a technical amendment to clarify the definition of a volunteer development worker for the purposes of the social welfare code. Section 4 provides for an increase of €10 in the monthly rate of child benefit, bringing the lower and higher rates, respectively, to €160 and €195 per month. Families who receive the monthly payment via their bank accounts will receive the budget increase from April 2007, while those who receive payment via personalised payable order books encashable at post offices will be paid in the first week in May 2007, back dated to April 2007. In addition, section 26 provides for a measure of flexibility in the payment arrangements for child benefit by removing the presumption that a child resides with only one person.

Section 5 provides, in addition to a technical amendment, that where a person who was in receipt of illness benefit for at least two years has engaged in employment for less than 26 weeks and subsequently re-applies for that benefit, payment will not be made at a lower rate than that which he or she previously received. This section and section 8 provide that former recipients of carer's benefit or carer's allowance who transfer to illness benefit or jobseeker's benefit may revert to a rate not lower than that previously in payment. Section 5 also removes an obsolete reference to "rules of behaviour".

Section 6 contains a number of measures to enhance the maternity benefit scheme. These include provision for the payment of maternity benefit to the father of a newborn child on the death of the child's mother without having to satisfy the contribution conditions of the scheme in his own right. This section also provides for the payment of not less than six weeks maternity benefit on the death of the mother, bringing this scheme in line with the after-death payment arrangements of other social welfare schemes. In addition, the section clarifies the position in respect of disqualification for receipt of maternity benefit by providing that benefit will not be payable where a woman engages in any form of insurable employment or self-employment, or fails, without good cause, to attend for medical examination.

As the provisions governing adoptive benefit mirror those applicable to maternity benefit, section 7 extends the section 6 enhancements to adoptive benefit. It also clarifies that a person will be disqualified from receiving adoptive benefit if he or she engages in any form of employment or self-employment. As outlined, section 9 contains amendments to the provisions governing the means test and the assessment of spouses' earnings for the purposes of jobseeker's allowance, pre-retirement allowance, farm assist and disability allowance.

Sections 10, 11, 16 and 25 provide for technical amendments to the occupational injuries schemes including the deletion of an obsolete provision regarding the prescribed time for claiming the cost of medical care. They also provide for the deletion of obsolete references in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 to "rules of behaviour".

Section 12 provides for the inclusion of education and training, subject to prescribed conditions, in the activities in which a recipient of carer's benefit may engage and still satisfy the conditions for receipt of that benefit. Section 13 provides for a technical amendment to clarify date of entry into social insurance for the purposes of a State pension, contributory.

Section 14 provides for the direct payment of increases for qualified adults payable with the State pensions directly to the qualified adult, for the duration of the period of entitlement of the State pensioner. This provision is applicable to the State pension, contributory, State pension, transition, and the State pension, non-contributory, and will come into effect for new claims made from 24 September 2007.

Section 15 provides that where a recipient of invalidity pension subsequently qualifies for State pension, contributory, or a pension payable under reciprocal arrangements by another state, he or she shall be entitled to receive whichever payment is the most beneficial. Section 17 provides that guardian's payment, contributory, and guardian's payment, non-contributory, shall not be payable simultaneously with a payment under Part VI of the Child Care Act 1991.

Section 18 provides that, for the purposes of the bereavement grant, "qualified child" shall include a person aged between 16 and 22 who is in receipt of disability allowance. Section 19 contains a technical amendment to clarify that the widowed parent grant is applicable to recipients of widow's and widower's contributory pensions which are payable under the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005.

Section 20 provides that where a person who was in receipt of a widow's or widower's payment ceases to be a widow or widower and subsequently applies for jobseeker's allowance, payment of the allowance will commence without the application of the "waiting days" condition normally applicable for that allowance.

Section 21 provides for an increase in the upper earnings limit for customers in receipt of the one-parent family payment from €375 to €400 per week. This provision is effective from May 2007. Section 22 confers power to make regulations to provide for a transitional payment where a deserted wives benefit beneficiary's entitlement ceases because her earnings have exceeded the prescribed upper limit of €20,000. Section 23 provides for a means-tested payment equivalent to up to half the carer's allowance rate to certain persons who may also be in receipt of another social welfare payment.

Section 24 provides that where a person is unemployed for 12 months and in receipt of rent supplement, he or she may engage in full-time employment, or where a person participates in a community employment or back to work scheme, he or she will continue to receive rent supplement if he or she has been accepted as being in need of accommodation under the rental accommodation scheme. This section also provides at Schedule 1 for the transfer of certain functions from the Health Service Executive to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, as recommended by the Core Functions of the Health Service Report and as agreed by Government. In effect, the section removes the HSE from the administration of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme.

Section 24 also provides for a number of consequential amendments to existing provisions in the area of appeals, overpayments and recovery of overpayments arising from this. This is a technical change, necessitated by the fact that, following the transfer, the staff concerned will no longer be employees of the HSE. The section also provides for measures to preclude the payment of rent supplement where accommodation standards, as defined by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, are not met. In addition, the section contains the legislative provisions to preclude the payment of rent supplement in areas of regeneration, as identified by the same Department.

Section 27 provides for an increase in the amount of the annual respite care grant from €1,200 to €1,500 from June 2007. The section also provides for an enhancement of the scheme by providing that, subject to the conditions that may be prescribed, a person may engage in education and training and still qualify for the grant.

Section 28 clarifies the obligation of a claimant to provide the information and evidence required in support of a social welfare claim, and to inform the Department of any relevant change of circumstances in the course of payment. Section 29 outlines in legislation the five factors, based on European Court of Justice case law, that are taken into account when determining whether a claimant for certain social welfare schemes satisfies the habitual residence condition.

Section 30 provides for the exchange of relevant employment data between my Department, the Revenue Commissioners and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to facilitate the operation of the agency established under Towards 2016 with responsibility for ensuring employment rights compliance. Section 31 contains measures to further strengthen control in issuing personal public service numbers. They include increased penalties, enhanced identity measures and provisions to combat the use of fraudulent documentation.

Section 32 provides for the household budgeting scheme to encompass any telecommunications service provider which is registered with the Commission for Communications Regulation. Section 33 contains provisions for the inclusion of the managers and staff of social welfare branch offices in the categories of persons designated to decide claims for certain social welfare payments under the social welfare code. This measure is intended to facilitate improvement in claim processing times in branch offices by removing the current requirement to forward certain claims to social welfare local offices for decision.

Section 34 provides for an improvement in the means test applicable to disability allowance by increasing by €30,000, from €20,000 to €50,000, the amount of capital which is disregarded for the purposes of the means test. It also provides for some technical amendments to Schedule 3 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005.

Section 35 provides a number of enhancements to the means test for entitlement to supplementary welfare allowance, including the exclusion from means assessment of any moneys received by way of guardian's payments and respite care grant. This section also provides for the disregard, for rent supplement purposes, of 50% of additional income, including earnings from employment to a maximum of €200 per week and subject to a minimum disregard of €75 per week. This, together with the improvement in section 24, whereby a rent supplement recipient accepted for the residential scheme may engage in full-time employment, is aimed at supporting people returning to work and to assist tenants in achieving long-term housing solutions for their needs.

The Department recently met with the social partners to discuss the proposed measures and will hold further consultations with the social partners shortly. Arising from these discussions, some further adjustment to the measures may perhaps be suggested. In that event, I may bring forward proposals to Government for the inclusion of any necessary amendment to the Bill on Committee Stage.

The main measures I am introducing in this Bill with regard to the Pensions Act will further enhance the regulatory regime governing supplementary pensions. Section 36 and Part 1 of Schedule 2 make provision for the inclusion of trust retirement annuity contracts — trust RACs — within the remit of the Pensions Act 1990. This is a requirement under Directive 2003/41/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 3 June 2003 on the activities and supervision of institutions for occupational retirement provision — the IORPs directive. This amendment to the Pensions Act only applies to trust RACs which currently have approximately 10,000 members. These are arrangements for groups of individuals established under trust, for example, the Law Society of Ireland or the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ireland. This amending provision treats trust RACs in a similar manner to that already provided for in the Pensions Act 1990 in respect of defined contribution occupational pension schemes.

Part 2 of Schedule 2 contains amendments to the Pensions Act to enhance the Pension Board's powers in the area of prosecution. Section 3A of the Pensions Act was inserted by section 39 of the Social Welfare Law Reform and Pensions Act 2006 to provide an alternative to the prosecution of an offence by the Pensions Board. It allows the board introduce an on-the-spot fine regime as an alternative to taking a prosecution. Section 3A is now amended to specify the sections of the Act, a contravention of which will warrant the application of an on-the-spot fine. Contraventions of the Act which are not specified under section 3A because they do not, in the board's view, meet the criteria for an on-the-spot fine will be considered for prosecution by the board.

The Pensions Act is also amended to increase the level of fines for both summary and indictable offences under the Act from €1904.61 to €5,000 for a summary offence and from €12,697.38 to €25,000 for an indictable offence. It provides that fines imposed under the Act shall not be paid out of the resources of the scheme or trust RAC, or out of the assets of any PRSA, as the case may be.

Part 3 of Schedule 2 to the Bill provides for a number of miscellaneous amendments which are mainly technical in nature, namely, the insertion of two new sections into the Pensions Act in regard to the accountability of the chief executive of the Pensions Board and the Pensions Ombudsman before the Committee of Public Accounts. This amendment is in compliance with the requirements of the Report of the Working Group on the Accountability of Secretaries General and Accounting Officers — the Mullarkey report. I thank the Pension Board for its help in drafting these amendments to the Pensions Act.

Section 37 amends the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 to underpin the proposals in Towards 2016 for the Revenue Commissioners to transfer to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and the new office dedicated to employment rights compliance, information similar to that which the Revenue Commissioners will be empowered to transfer to my Department. Section 38 and Schedule 3 of the Bill amend the Combat Poverty Agency Act 1986 and the Family Support Agency Act 2001 to provide that the director and chief executive officer, respectively, of these agencies, which are under my remit, are accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts on the same basis as are the Accounting Officers of Departments.

This Bill builds further on the development of social inclusion measures adopted by this Government over recent years. It safeguards the living standards of those who rely on social welfare income and other supports and prioritises the allocation of resources in favour of those most in need. Resources will continue to be targeted at helping those most in need in order not alone to raise their standard of living but to ensure that everyone is a valued citizen who can make his or her own individual contribution to society regardless of his or her particular personal circumstances. However, while the significant social issues we face can be eased, they cannot be solved by welfare and support payments alone. It is vitally important that we do not view welfare solely as a panacea. That is why a "one size fits all" welfare system does not provide the answers. Welfare support systems must be tailored to the specific needs of individuals and should be seen as stepping stones to achieving a better quality of life.

The Bill is also about solid and fundamental structural reforms of welfare policies. It is about reforms that will modernise, make the welfare system fairer and deliver more enlightened social policy, which the country deserves. For these reasons, I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to a constructive debate.

I thank the officials from the Department of Social and Family Affairs for the briefing we received on the Bill today. I find all the officials in the Department extraordinarily courteous and helpful. Many colleagues have said the same and it is something other Departments could emulate. I do not say this to get on the good side of the officials.

I would like to raise a concern I raised when making my speech on last year's Bill. I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that in 2000 the Bill for that year was published on 10 February and debated on 24 February. Therefore, Opposition Deputies were given 14 days to study the Bill and come up with a reasoned response. In 2001, the Opposition was given 20 days to do the same. In 2002, it was given 13 days; in 2003, 12; and in 2004, 13. In 2005, the number of days provided dropped to seven. Last year it dropped to one, the same as this year. There is much in the Bill which is complex and important. Does the Minister think it is fair that Members on this side of the House have only one day to examine, take advice on and respond to the legislation which calls for constructive debate? Last year he said in his closing speech:

I apologise to those Deputies who feel that we are dealing with this Bill too quickly. That was not my intention, but it was just the way it happened on the day. I particularly regret inconveniencing Deputies Stanton and Penrose who had to respond at one day's notice to the legislation. The process has slowed down since then, but I appreciate that it was a bit unfair to them. It was not intentional, but the Bill appeared on the Order Paper rapidly.

Why did the same happen this year? This is not good enough.

I asked the Ceann Comhairle last week, while the Minister was present, what the convention was and he said the time allowed was normally two weeks. It is an insult to the Opposition and the House that the same has happened again this year. I can understand it happening once and believe it was unintentional, but now that it has happened a second time, I must put it to the House that it was intentional and meant to discommode the Opposition. I cannot understand why the Bill could not have been brought forward two weeks ago, as the Minister had the whole year to put it together. In other years this happened. I will not continue to moan about it, but I want my annoyance noted. That it happened a second time is indefensible and the Minister cannot make a valid defence. It is unfortunate that it has happened again.

The briefing on the Bill was scheduled for yesterday. However, as we all know, many Deputies from rural areas are not in Dublin on a Monday and I am glad it was possible to reschedule the briefing for today. If we were even given one week instead of the conventional two to prepare for the debate, it would be helpful.

Much of the Bill implements provisions and changes made in the budget, mostly increases in payment rates which are always welcome. I welcome, in particular, improvements in payments rates of child benefit, maternity and adoptive benefit, and respite care grants, as well as improvements to qualification criteria applying to transfers between payments, illness benefit, carer's benefit, jobseeker's benefit, injury benefit, invalidity pension and bereavement grants.

While increases in child benefit, and child dependant allowance last year, are welcome, I am disappointed that there has still been no progress in other areas of child income support. The Minister stated in his speech last year:

In the area of child income support, the Government's policy is to concentrate resources on enhancing the child benefit scheme. Child benefit now accounts for some 67% of child income support, while in 1994 it constituted less than 30%. There are sound reasons for this policy. Child benefit is both neutral vis-à-vis the employment status of the child’s parents and it does not contribute to poverty traps. As a near universal payment, child benefit is not taxable, is not assessed as means for other secondary benefits and is payable to the primary carer, usually the mother. When account is taken of these aspects of payment, child benefit is a most effective child income support mechanism.

It is clear from statistics and reports that increases in child benefit alone do not improve the circumstances of young children in low income households and have failed to confront the unacceptable blemish of child poverty in the Ireland of the 21st century, an Ireland of "exceptional wealth", to use the Minister's words last year. I agree with him when he says child poverty is unacceptable and that we must strive to banish it for good. However, current policies are not working. If they were, we would not have seen an increase in the rate of consistent poverty for children under 18 years, up a percentage point since 2004 to 10.7% in 2005, as published in the most recent EU SILC 2005 figures published last year by the CSO. A recent UNICEF report shows that under the "material well-being" indicator, Ireland ranks 19th out of 21 countries surveyed, ninth on average when all six indicators are taken into account.

I see in today's newspaper that the Minister is going to Brussels on Thursday and remind him that the risk of poverty in Ireland is a matter of great concern to the Commission. We are not out of the woods yet in that regard. We all come across frustrating cases in our clinics each week. People are trapped and can see no way out. If there was more flexibility and imagination, more help could be provided. A 62-year-old man in receipt of disability allowance rang me today. He is living in a house in which the roof is falling in and water is coming through the walls, but he can do nothing about it. He is trapped. He owns the house, but there is no support for him to help him improve his circumstances. Such cases are heartbreaking and we find it impossible to get help for such persons.

If Government policies were working, we would not have had to see the establishment of an End Child Poverty coalition with members from OPEN, the Combat Poverty Agency, Barnardos, etc. These groups had to get together in a coalition to make their case. The Government has failed to meet its child poverty target set in the national anti-poverty strategy. It promised that relative income poverty among children would be eliminated and that consistent poverty levels among children would be reduced to under 2% by 2007, but this has not happened.

Despite the announcement by the Minister in 2004 of the introduction of a targeted second tier payment and recommendations at national and international level and an ongoing study by the NESC, this payment has still not been introduced. I acknowledge that child dependent allowance was increased to €22 per week in the budget and that there were increases in the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance and FIS, but the take-up of FIS is still low, estimated at about40%, while many families miss out on the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance due to the September deadline, a matter I raised previously. Bureaucracy rules, however, and there is no movement in the matter.

Greater efforts must be made to target the State's resources towards low income families with children. If we can help children at that stage, their education and life chances will benefit significantly. However, if they are stuck in poverty, their life chances suffer, while the opportunity for them to reach their potential in education, training, employment and life is diminished. We must focus more attention on children experiencing poverty. Year after year Ministers come and tell us there has been an improvement. We have never had so much money and wealth. Why, therefore, do we still have children experiencing consistent poverty, as measured by the Minister's measure? We are talking about families who do not have the price of a pair of shoes, a change of clothes or track suits. Their children cannot go to birthday parties because they cannot afford to bring a present for their friends. Some children go to school hungry. We are not dealing with these problems.

In September last year the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the Government to strengthen its support to families to ensure children were protected against the negative impact of economic hardship on their development. Therefore, it is not just the Opposition which has pointed this out. The committee also called for the introduction of a supplement to the existing universal child benefit payment as an additional and targeted allowance to assist families which experience the highest levels of poverty. I appreciate that there may be barriers to the introduction of a second-tier payment, but three years is a lengthy period to determine those and reach a solution. Perhaps the Minister might tell us when the NESC review will be completed.

Another important element of the child poverty debate is the campaign to restore universal child benefit launched by the Free Legal Advice Centres. The current weekly payments are €19.10 for an adult and €9.60 for a child.

In addition to there having been no increases in the rates of direct provision in recent budgets, some 2,000 child asylum seekers are denied child benefit. The application of the habitual residence clause to those children denies them. While it also affects the children of immigrants, child asylum seekers are more severely affected, since their parents are denied employment and live from very limited cash income while on direct provision.

We must debate and discuss this major issue. There are currently 2,200 children in Ireland whose families receive €9.60 per week to care for them. What is the price of a pair of shoes and a change of clothes? In many cases, such children will be granted permission to remain in Ireland when their cases are heard. Another issue is why it is taking so long to make a decision on so many of them. Some of those children have experienced such deprivation for several years. What kind of impact will it have on them as adult citizens? What damage is being done to them? They are innocents and surely we should do more for them.

The Minister should consider their plight. As far as I know, there are only 2,200 such children, but they are living in extreme poverty with only the barest necessities. We should try to integrate them if possible. I am not sure whether the Minister has visited any refugee centres — perhaps he might tell us in his response. However, it would be useful if he called to see where those children are living and witnessed the conditions. For example, the children will never see their own parents cook a meal. One might contend that it is irrelevant, since they are provided with food, but something is fundamentally wrong with that and perhaps we should reconsider the entire area. The children in question will probably remain here as future citizens and we are giving them an awful start in life.

I also note that section 29 of the Bill provides a statutory basis for decisions on habitual residence conditions identified by the European Court of Justice. Have guidelines been published regarding their interpretation? Some of them seem rather subjective and open to interpretation and we may require more information. I have been contacted in cases where payments have been denied under the "main centre of interest" subsection. The reasons are confusing and the area should be re-examined.

Another important means of tackling child poverty is creating better education and employment opportunities for parents, which will allow them to move from welfare dependency to gainful employment. The Minister published his proposals on lone parents in February 2006. At the time they received much media attention and were subject to a great deal of public debate. The Minister said the following regarding the lone parent review:

It is my intention that the outcome of these reviews, together with initiatives already in place in my Department, will contribute to the development of proposals designed to better support and encourage both lone parents and those seeking work in achieving a better standard of living, employment and education opportunities, a better future for themselves and their children.

If the Minister had introduced such proposals, he would have found Opposition Members very supportive. We encouraged the Minister to bring them forward, but we have not yet seen them. Perhaps the Minister can now outline the status of those proposals on low-income families.

Since his speech last year there has been no real movement, either on changing the one-family payment or on improving education and training opportunities for lone parents and providing them with successful and affordable child care to engage in new opportunities. Child care, its cost, availability and, most importantly, its quality are still major issues. The only change in the Bill is to raise the higher earning threshold from €375 per week to €400. That will do little to solve the child care issues that lone parents face or assist them in upskilling and entering better-paid employment.

Reports by the European Anti-Poverty Network, EAPN, and the One Parent Exchange and Network, OPEN, have clearly shown what poverty traps a return to employment can entail for lone parents and low-income families that enter poorly paid employment. Losses of secondary benefits such as medical cards, rent supplement and so on, coupled with the additional child care and transport costs that a return to work normally entails, render employment an economically non-viable option for lone parents in particular. I have had lone parents at my clinic ask me who will mind their children if they return to work. It is a major problem.

I note that changes to the rent supplement scheme will now allow a person in receipt of rent supplement who has been out of work for over 12 months to retain the rent supplement when he or she returns to work, as long as that person is on the RAS list. At a recent committee meeting with the End Child Poverty Coalition, concerns were raised regarding the administration of the RAS and the transfer of people on rent supplement to local authority housing lists.

I also note that changes to the means test regarding earnings limits, with a 50% disregard up to €200, are also included in Schedule 3 and those too should help lone parents and social welfare recipients returning to work. I wonder how RAS is now functioning. We know that a great deal of money has been transferred from the Department of Social and Family Affairs to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, but little has been spent and the scheme may need reviewing.

In the Minister's speech, he stated that the quality of much private rented accommodation was extraordinarily poor, with people living in very poor conditions. They come to Deputies all the time and state that the accommodation is damp and that water is running down the walls. Sometimes their children have asthma or a chest infection as a result. That major issue must be addressed in today's Ireland. We hear of two or three small children living with their mother in a cramped room with water running down the walls. It is hard to believe until one sees it.

Another important aspect to the proposals aims to end the cohabitation rule so that parents of children can live together without their income dropping. The Minister said that the rule is outdated and does not reflect modern society. However, in his Department there still appears to be a bias against unmarried fathers, who have little support from the State when it comes to access to their children.

Great changes are happening. According to the CSO Vital Statistics figures published in 2003, covering Ireland North and South, from "1980 to 2002, the proportion of birth outside marriage increased substantially in both jurisdictions, rising from around 5% to approximately one third of all births in both areas". That figure continues to increase in the Republic of Ireland, with the CSO Vital Statistics for the second quarter of 2006 showing:

there were 5,056 births registered as outside marriage in quarter 2 of 2006. This accounted for 31.6% of all births, an increase of 0.2% on quarter 2 2005. The highest percentage of births outside marriage occurred in Limerick City at 54.6%, while the county with the lowest percentage was Leitrim at 20%. In quarter 2 of 1997, 3,445 births were registered outside marriage or 25.2% of all births.

That substantial increase indicates a great change in society. We must consider that and introduce proposals to support families more.

We welcome the Minister's proposals regarding lone parents, the cohabitation rule and so on, and it would have been great if this Dáil could have ended with such proposals in place. Then we could all have supported the Minister in that work, happy in the knowledge that we had achieved something. The danger now is that, with the end of the Dáil, all those proposals could fall by the wayside. Who knows what Minister will be in power after the election? It is disappointing that the Minister has not achieved those aims. The ideas were laudable and, to give him his due, his intentions were proper. However, the reform has not been implemented.

Changes have been made in the Bill to child and maternity benefit. In the case of the first, we see the removal of criteria which presume that a child resides with only one person, which is of assistance. In the case of maternity benefit, there will be a payment for six weeks to a father automatically on the death of the mother. However, I am concerned that those will not apply to fathers not registered on the birth certificate.

I have questioned the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform several times regarding the establishment of a guardianship register for unmarried fathers, which would confer greater rights on them. However, the Minister has stated that he has no plans to do so, which is a shame. At present, a father can register, but it is only a piece of paper that both parties sign, with no central register. If that piece of paper is lost or destroyed, there is no record of guardianship. It would be simple to establish such a register, but it has not happened.

I was pleased to see changes to carers' payments, such as increases in the respite care grant and the inclusion of education and training opportunities to the carers' benefit scheme. That is essential for carers who wish to return to work once their caring duties are over.

I was pleased to see provision for the partial payment of carer's allowance to social welfare recipients. I proposed a half-rate payment, particularly to pensioner carers, in Fine Gael's carers policy and believe strongly that carers should be given improved financial and social supports in recognition of the importance of their role to members of their families, for whom they care, and society as a whole. Deputy Penrose has done a lot of work in this regard in his role as Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs.

I was very disappointed to see no supports for young carers included in the Bill. I have raised the plight of up to 3,000 young carers aged between 15 and 18 years with the Minister on a number of occasions and would like to see better social supports available to them. They have great responsibilities by comparison with their peers. In the absence of financial supports, other forms of assistance such as home help, counselling and support networks would ease the burden of caring on them. Delivery in this regard has been postponed until 2016, or some such year, and no provisions are being made in the Bill before the House.

Combating fraud, particularly in regard to PPS numbers, is another concern of mine. Section 31 of the Bill outlines measures for the penalties to be imposed once fraud has been established and more security measures to combat fraud, in particular, the issuing of public service cards that include one's name, PPS number, photograph and signature. Does the Minister intend to issue the cards on a nationwide basis? If so, when and how? Will they afford the holder access to other services? Large sums of money are being lost each year through PPS fraud, the failure of companies to pay social insurance contributions for employees and problems with overpayments by way of the electronic fund transfer system. I have tabled many parliamentary questions on the issue and I am awaiting the most recent figures regarding overpayments and the Department's recovery of these moneys.

I am pleased that direct payments to all pension-qualifying adults will come into effect in September. I am disappointed that the payment does not extend to all qualifying adults regardless of payment type. Direct payment should be offered to all adult dependants, particularly women, to help them achieve economic independence from their partners. The National Women's Council has raised concerns about the limitation rule which limits payments to households to 1.7 times the adult payment rate, even if two adults therein qualify for payment in their own right.

There are other concerns regarding the marriage bar and pension entitlements, as raised by me and other Deputies on a number of occasions. I note the Government has committed to giving all women of pensionable age an individual entitlement to a pension in their own right in the next three years. The marriage bar issue is still a problem. The averaging rule is a major concern. Therefore, we should examine it. A woman I met recently said she was one of a diminishing number of affected women. Women who worked, took time off to care for their families and worked for a little period thereafter are denied a pension in their own right. If they had not worked at all at the tail end of their working lives, they probably would have received a full pension, or at least some pension or recognition. The averaging rule, therefore, needs to be addressed.

Consider the transfer of the community welfare service from the HSE to the Department, a matter to which I have given some thought. Deputy Penrose feels very strongly about it and I await his considered deliberations thereon. Responsibility for rent supplement is being transferred to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government from the HSE and Department of Social and Family Affairs. Community welfare officers provide a very personal service that is unique and has developed over time. Perhaps some of their functions can be transferred such as those concerning rented accommodation. They feel very strongly that they have not been consulted on the transfer. The Minister said he was including the relevant provision in the legislation and would consult them afterwards. This may be putting the cart before the horse; he should have consulted them beforehand to learn from their experience. There was no meeting or consultation but perhaps there has been recently.

The transfer will affect approximately 1,000 people working in the health sector. There are 100,000 recipients of supplementary welfare allowance payments. Those using the services provided directly by the HSE, including domiciliary care allowance recipients, are affected. The Government's justification for transferring the functions involves an organisational arrangement allowing the HSE to focus on core responsibilities. Very often those who are or should be helped by community welfare officers are under considerable pressure and the assistance they receive is a safety net.

I am amazed at the relationship community welfare officers build with recipients. It is crucial to acknowledge that it is not just a question of money. The officers offer personal support, very often by listening. I have met and asked them about their training in counselling because very often they fulfil the role of counsellors. They link in with other services in the health sector such as psychiatric and psychological services and public health nurses' services. It is feared that this link could be broken if responsibility is transferred from the HSE to the Department and that the officers would become mere financial administrators. Their role is much greater than this.

I understand the transfer is included in the legislation but that it will probably not be implemented this side of the general election. We will be debating the issue on Committee Stage. Community welfare officers believe the proposal to transfer responsibility for the service is based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of their role requirements and the purpose, operation and function of the service and that this would inevitably result in the separation of health and personal social services over time. The first time they were given an opportunity to express a formal view was during the committee proceedings last June. They believe the transfer would have a profound, adverse effect on the service, ultimately undermining the quality and range of services they provide, to the detriment of some of the most vulnerable citizens. There has been no public debate on the issue.

Community welfare officers believe the description of their role as pertaining more to welfare supports than personal social services disregards the key information and advocacy role they perform in addition to making referrals to statutory health and personal social services. It is, therefore, more than a question of money. The officers are afraid the Department will not continue to devote resources to functions for which it is not ultimately responsible. They believe their ability to make discretionary payments will be undermined. We should be enhancing their power to make such payments. We have all come across cases where this is useful. Very many Deputies must now ring the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to obtain help for constituents because there is no other body which can help. Community welfare officers should be fulfilling this role.

There is a detailed section in the Bill concerning pensions. Less than 50% of the workforce have personal pension coverage; coverage among working women is even lower. Many women in part-time work and job-share arrangements are excluded even from State occupational pension schemes. The Pensions Ombudsman is concerned about this. We are still awaiting the Green Paper on pensions. It is due in March and will be considered by the next Dáil.

The Minister referred to mandatory pensions, about which we have been hearing and the looming pensions crisis for the past two years. I suppose the Green Paper will make progress in this regard. The trade union Amicus has advocated an SSIA-style saving model for pensions, especially for those in the lower tax bracket. Pensions comprise a very big issue.

The Bill has many provisions but, unfortunately, we did not have very much time to consider them in great detail or obtain advice thereon. I understand Committee Stage will be taken in a few weeks and we might have time to consider it in more detail between now and then.

This is probably one of the last Bills the Minister will introduce during the term of this Dáil and I hope it is successful. It has many good, welcome and necessary provisions but we must still focus on certain issues, child poverty in particular. I agree with the Minister that eliminating child poverty should be our aim. We must focus all the resources and expertise of the State on the problem to lift those affected out of poverty and allow them the life chances they need and deserve in order to live fulfilling lives. If we do not do so, the affected children may end up in trouble with the police, be put in jail and get into bother which would ultimately cost more than the cost of addressing the problem now.

I am glad to have an opportunity to contribute on behalf of the Labour Party to the Second Stage debate on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2007. I join Deputy Stanton in thanking the officials from the Department of Social and Family Affairs for giving us an insight into this Bill, which is possibly the most complex legislation to have come before us. However, the late manner in which Bills are provided to Members has to stop because we do not have the Minister's support in terms of time and advice. The Bill contains a number of positive developments which are welcomed by the Labour Party. It is time, for example, that antiquated and obsolete practices such as rules of behaviour are eliminated.

The waiting day requirement has caused anxiety among people in receipt of unemployment benefits and other payments. Several people from the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's county of Kilkenny raised that issue with me. It is absurd that people have to wait three days for payments when they have already qualified by making social insurance contributions. Any person unfortunate enough to be in that situation should be paid immediately. Given the investments made on upgrading the Department's computer systems, there should be no waiting days for any payments.

Concerns have been expressed with regard to people who do not receive their pensions on time despite applying for them several months in advance of retirement. They are entitled to their pensions once they have completed the forms and submitted birth certificates and other documentation, so it is a scandal that complaints arise in that regard. It does not say much for the new computer system if people have to wait. The Department should be able to project ahead so that, like the travel pass, pensions are paid automatically from the date on which they are due to commence. We should recognise people's contributions by paying them in a timely manner rather than make them feel as if they are begging for their entitlements. It is time to end that charade.

Deputy Stanton noted that people have to be in care on the first Friday in June in order to qualify for respite care grants. I am aware the grant is annual and that facilities have been introduced for people who are hospitalised but what happens if a person enters care after that date and dies at the end of the following May? The system should not be so rigid that it cannot react to events on the ground. We should be capable of adjusting to sometimes harsh realities.

I have championed the cause of carers at every available opportunity and will continue to do so. It is Labour Party policy that we will abolish the means test if we come to power because we recognise carers and the work they do 24 hours per day. They save the State billions of euro, so a payment worth €140 million is the least that can be made to support them. I acknowledge that the respite care grant has alleviated some areas of distress and thank the Minister on behalf of carers for the €300 payments he is now making. However, the payment is mere crumbs from a rich man's table because, without carers, many more people would have to be put into State care. We would not even have sufficient accommodation for such an increase because the public sector, which accounted for 80% of accommodation in the 1960s, now comprises only 48% of total places. Privatisation is being introduced by stealth and that is not for the better.

Deputy Stanton has championed the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance. The September deadline is too rigid because people often miss it. If the sole aim of the Minister's policies is to help people who face poverty, flexibility is vital to ensure they receive the support they need. Applicants would already have qualified through rigid means testing procedures. Carer's allowance should not be assessed as income for the back-to-school allowance. I am aware of a person from Robinstown in Mullingar who was disgracefully deprived of the back-to-school allowance for that reason.

This is the most means tested country in Europe. I would love to know how much the Department is spending annually on means testing. There would be significant savings from abolishing the means test for the carer's allowance in terms of no longer having to measure small and irrelevant matters. From that perspective, the allowance would not even cost €140 million.

The social welfare system is in need of modernisation to meet changing needs. The current system is rooted in outmoded concepts, relegating women in particular to subservient roles within a system of eligibility and assessment in the social welfare codes. Progress has been made with regard to what was formerly known as the qualified adult dependant, although I do not believe in changing names for the sake of modernity when the underlying circumstances have not changed. Nobody is made better off simply by changing a name. We have seen before cases where money which could have been given to the people who need it was spent on changing names, thereby being consumed by a bureaucratic monolith.

In the interest of equality and equity, the Labour Party wishes to see an end to outmoded concepts and we wholeheartedly promote and support economic independence for women. To achieve that end, we must abolish the limitation rule for all payments and increase the rate of all qualified adult payments towards 100% of the personal payments, as well as making them directly payable. However, people should not be fooled because the fact that the qualified adult allowance will be paid directly from September does not mean they will be better off. Women, who comprise 95% of the people eligible for this payment, will merely receive the money formerly paid to their husbands. There will be no economic benefit to many households if both adults receive individual payments. Paying benefits solely to husbands restricts wives' economic independence and excludes them from receiving payments in their own right. The only way to address that issue is by paying the qualified adult payment directly, which the Minister has done. Abolition of the limitation rule is important in the context of economic independence for women.

This is essential because no economic benefit would accrue to the household if both adults were to receive an individual payment as, in the case of the majority of qualified adults, their payments would go directly to their husbands. This is very important and Members must state that while the first step is being taken, the second appears to be a long way down the road. As I noted, 95% of qualified adults are women, many of whom were excluded from the labour market because of their caring and parental work. I note that under Sustaining Progress, the Government has committed itself to increasing the qualified adult payment to 100% of the full personal payment by 2007. This will not be honoured and the timescale for the achievement of this worthy objective has been long-fingered again.

Many women were forced from employment by implementation of the marriage bar. Effectively, women were discriminated against because of their gender and the application of the bar which, on reflection, was an incredible act of discrimination. How was its application ever contemplated, let alone implemented? It is mindboggling that it ever escaped detailed scrutiny. Consequently, such women are now being denied a host of financial benefits to which they would have been duly entitled. Up to 45% of women are at risk of poverty and much of this has its origins in implementation of the marriage bar. It drove people from work who would qualify for a payment. Effectively, Members have described as non-persons those who find themselves in this position. They are not entitled to the State pension through no fault of their own. As they do not qualify for the various schemes, effectively, they are being discriminated against. Members should describe this as State discrimination. It is high time that they grabbed the bull by the horns and admitted a gross error was made at the time which constituted a gross level of State discrimination. They should try to deal with this very serious problem.

Child poverty is a major issue. While one can point to the universality of the payment of child benefit, the End Child Poverty Coalition made a presentation to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs recently. It is clear that bodies such as the European Anti-Poverty Network, Barnardos and OPEN still consider child poverty to be one of the great scourges of Irish society. It is an indictment on this society to state children are still at risk of poverty in 2007. This issue has not been tackled. Although child dependant allowance was increased by a few euro, a supplementary child benefit payment to supplement the universal child benefit payment was not introduced. Such a payment would be aimed at those on lower incomes and would be directly targeted. It would certainly be the most effective way to tackle and root out child poverty, a scourge and a blight on this society. Moreover, without the work of individuals such as Fr. Peter McVerry and others who are engaged in non-governmental organisations and as community volunteers nationwide, an even greater level of poverty would be eating away at society. The amalgamation of family income supplement, child dependant allowance and other measures should be considered in an effort to tackle this subject. This is a matter on which much work remains to be done and I urge the Minister to continue to try to do it.

I refer to better pre-application information and the relaxation of full-time care and attention rules for carer's allowance and the carer's respite grant. Approximately 15% of carers are refused carer's allowance on the basis that they do not provide full-time care and attention. In my experience, this is usually due to their distance from the person for whom they are caring or because the care recipient wishes to retain some independence such as continuing to dress or to cook for himself or herself. While there is no specific guidance on the requisite distance or time to qualify for carer's allowance, there is a general list of tasks that each carer is expected to carry out. Many carers go through the long application form which contains 69 questions only to be turned down at the final stage. While I accept that each case is different, there should be clear criteria on the full-time care and attention rule in order that applicants know where they stand before they reply. The Minister should also relax the criteria to allow carers qualify in cases in which they save the State a nursing home place or significant costs. The essential question the deciding officer should ask is whether the care recipient would require nursing home care or significant professional assistance were he or she not receiving assistance from the applicant. This is an important point.

A person who goes from being a housewife to caring for an elderly relative is not awarded credits if she did not pay credits for the two years before making her claim. This deprives carers of credits, which mainly affects them in the calculation of their pension. This brings Members back to the issue noted by Deputy Stanton to the effect that averages are the scourge of many in respect of their pension qualification. This is unfair, particularly to carers. The Minister should ensure all such carers will be awarded credits and that all previous cases will be awarded with backdated credits. He will state he hopes to deal with this in a forthcoming Green Paper on pensions. However, it will not be published until March 2008 and one can only guess how long it will be before any concrete action is taken in this regard.

Another point has been brought to my attention in the past few days concerning the manner in which many employers are taking on people on short-term employment contracts. By so doing, they pay no PRSI contributions and the employees lose the benefit of PRSI contributions already paid in terms of dental health, etc. This constitutes a major disadvantage for young employees who continue not to be covered. Such employers have no payroll costs and make no tax returns for the employees concerned. As the latter may choose not to declare their earnings, there is a potential loss of revenue and employment rights. A contract leaves employees without any employment rights, including holiday, sick or bank holiday pay. As temporary employees pay no PRSI, they build up no unemployment, redundancy or other benefits. This is being used by employers to get themselves off the hook. However, those who suffer ultimately are the employees, particularly young people. This constitutes rolling backing the years and must be investigated and examined in order that people do not get away with avoiding the payment of PRSI.

I wish to address the emasculation of the community welfare service. While I know whose idea it was, I will not bother to reveal the name. Now that the old health boards and, more recently, the HSE are off the pitch, where will the buffer be? This transfer has been effected by stealth. How will discretion and flexibility be protected when the referee owns the football?

And cannot be found.

Yes. The Labour Party is deeply alarmed by the Government's proposal to subsume the community welfare service into the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Labour Party Members strongly believe this service which caters for the most vulnerable in our society and which operates on the cutting edge of the link between health and poverty is best left exactly where it is, that is, within the health service. If it is not broken, why will the Minister break it? Is this little more than a carefully disguised cutback and attack on the vulnerable?

As I predicted in the House two months ago, community welfare officers, CWOs, will be reined in and prevented from providing information, advice and advocacy for vulnerable persons and communities. Consequently, the latter's most effective link to statutory health and personal social services will be effectively severed. While the Minister claims that this cannot happen, it is possible because the people served by CWOs, including those with addictions, mental health problems, abuse victims and people with chronic social behavioural and psychological issues, are far more likely to access health and personal social services through community welfare than through formal channels. This is because the possibility of discretionary community welfare payments provides an incentive and allows CWOs to make needs assessments and put such people in touch with appropriate health services.

As Deputy Stanton noted, CWOs are much more than mere financial administrators and most adopt a holistic approach. While a few may think they are the Minister for Finance, they are the exceptions, as 99.9% deal with issues in a highly positive manner. If the proposed transfer goes ahead, the Government will be running an unacceptably high risk that the link between payments and access to health services will be severed over time, if not rapidly. This is because the Department of Social and Family Affairs will be reluctant to fund functions for which it has no statutory responsibility. Realistically, it cannot be expected to develop an interest in identifying or meeting health or personal social service needs in the way community welfare officers do. They are not its responsibility. It would be highly unlikely to continue to devote resources to functions for which it was not responsible.

The Government's policy is based on the report of an interdepartmental review group, Core Functions of the Health Service Report, which recommended transfer. I do not see any difficulty with the objective of focusing the HSE's resources, activities and core health functions. However, the community welfare service performs a core health function. It is a profound misunderstanding to characterise the service as limited administration with cash benefits through the social welfare assistance scheme. The administration of the SWA scheme is a core part of the work of CWOs. As the late Frank Cluskey stated when introducing the scheme in 1977, it was more than a mere cash response. The service was deliberately placed within the community care structure and under the auspices of the Department of Health and Children with the intention of delivering a local response to individual needs and, crucially, providing its clients with access to a range of health and personal social services. The importance of the relationship between income maintenance and effective health and personal social services, as well as a safety net separate from other social welfare payments, was clearly and specifically identified in the Dáil debates as what had led to the establishment of the service.

These factors are as real and important today as when the scheme was first introduced. We are concerned that the proposed transfer would inevitably mean an end to discretionary SWA payments which would have direct and damaging effects on a client's ability to access health services, even if this is not the intent. It is hard to see how the discretionary element of payments could survive within the culture, structure and operational practices of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. This not a criticism of the Department. Rather, it is a recognition of a fundamental difference of approach. CWOs can make immediate payments to meet identified needs within clear guidelines using discretion when required. The Department administers entitlement based payments with a slower and more formal procedure which is not designed to respond rapidly to the urgent individual cases with which all public representatives are familiar.

It seems ironic that the Government intends to implement this transfer at a time when funding was provided belatedly to implement the primary care strategy. The community welfare service is a key component of that strategy which proposes an integrated team based approach involving interdisciplinary teams of health professionals in treatment and preventive care. Other health professionals within primary care teams have acknowledged a need to involve CWOs and have, therefore, expressed concern about the proposed transfer which will make this more difficult. Health professionals across the board also recognise the link between health and income maintenance and, therefore, highly value the contribution of discretionary SWA payments to positive health outcomes.

The existing community welfare service performs a core health function. The service works well and provides vital access to health services for the most vulnerable in our communities. The proposal to transfer it involves substantial risk to the quality and integrity of the service and its contribution to the primary care strategy and approved health outcomes. The Labour Party calls on the Minister to reverse the decision to transfer the service. We support the view of the trade union representing CWOs that before any change in the service is proposed or implemented, we require a full study of the service and, as Deputy Stanton stated, wide consultation on the likely effect of changes with those who manage, deliver, use and interact with it.

This measure will not be implemented until a commencement order is in place. A commencement order needs 21 sitting days before becoming effective. Therefore, it will not be implemented during the lifetime of the Government. I was surprised the Minister brought it forward. Someone must be buzzing at his ear. He is a shrewd politician. I give him that; he is able to smell the roses. Someone must have persecuted him to include this in the Bill. I could hazard a guess but will leave it at that. I will tell him one thing. We will not vote against much of what is included in the Bill because it is extremely positive. However, we will vote against this measure and fight it tooth and nail.

What the late Frank Cluskey introduced in the scheme was flexible, adaptable and allowed discretion. Is the Minister prepared to guarantee the discretion vested in the community welfare scheme will remain when this falls within the remit of the Department? Where will we find people at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. with intimate knowledge of the environment in which we all work and who are able to react rapidly to deal with an impending crisis? Where will this happen? Who will put it in place? I have said enough on this and the Minister knows the Labour Party view. Please God, no commencement order will be made and if we are returned to power, this will be another duck which will not fly.

Deputy Stanton is correct to state the universality of child benefit was fractured by the habitual residency condition. This is extremely regrettable. Looking back, the then Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, told us about the great crisis of immigrants flooding the country but nothing could be further from the truth. Very often the people flooding the country want to work. Hundreds of Irish people are refused welfare benefits because a restriction introduced to prevent welfare tourism by immigrants applies to them. More than 880 Irish nationals have been refused benefits such as unemployment assistance, one-parent family payment and old age pension. It also affects returning Irish emigrants such as priests and other Irish nationals who were not here on a regular basis. Figures from the Minister's study show the rationale for the continued use of the restrictions is no longer valid. Migrant workers arrive in Ireland to work rather than to claim welfare benefit. Migrant or any workers who experience exploitation should be allowed access to social protection, irrespective of nationality, length of time in the country or legal status. We must ensure no more acts of exploitation such as what happened in GAMA occur. This is extremely important.

A young person was in contact with me regarding people being cut off from social welfare payments. It is important that people are given due notice; it is not a matter of cutting off payments and then explaining why. I raised the matter in the Dáil. Surely people should be brought in and given an explanation as to why a particular payment is being terminated or what is the position. The issue of unceremoniously stopping payments without prior explanation or warning must be addressed because it causes real hardship and stress for those living from week to week on a tiny income. If an accusation of wrongdoing is made, it should be investigated and substantiated before the withdrawal of payment. The person who contacted me felt the accused should be informed in writing of the allegation and given the opportunity to respond before any such draconian action is taken. Surely this is the practice everywhere. Why are the most vulnerable on the margins of society treated in such a way by a public service which purports to help them? I felt extremely strongly about this case which involved the unannounced and unexplained suspension of a jobseeker's allowance. It was sorted out afterwards but we want to ensure it does not happen.

The Bill contains many provisions which the Labour Party supports, applauds and has fought for. The disregard of 50% of additional income for rent supplement purposes emanated from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs which I am proud to chair. It is an enlightened committee which brought forward a report on carers. We indicated that social welfare recipients should not be denied because of the stupid rule that one could not receive a second social welfare payment. It denied many, particularly widows and widowers who provided an important caring function within the home. Often a husband or wife was caring for an elderly father or aunt. Unfortunately, the husband might have died or been killed in an accident. When he was alive, his wife was in receipt of carer's allowance. However, as soon as he died, his wife, now in a vulnerable situation, lost not only the husband's wages but also lost carer's allowance because of this antiquated rule.

I salute the Minister for bringing forward this provision and look forward to a constructive debate on Committee Stage.

I wish to share time with Deputies Boyle and McHugh.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

In December I described the budget as an historic missed opportunity. Many of the proposals in the Bill come from that budget. I stated at the time that we have had an opportunity over the past number of years resulting from the strong economy, etc., to lift children and their families out of poverty. I note the Minister spoke of child poverty as an unacceptable blight on society, a view we would all share.

The Minister and his Government have been in power for a number of years and have had the opportunity and resources to transform the lives of many people, particularly children. They could have lifted such people out of poverty as there is now an extra €2 billion in the Exchequer, yet such resources are not used to that effect.

With the wealth of this State over the past ten years came an unprecedented opportunity to create a more equal society and deliver a health and education system that the people deserve. This Bill should also be taken in the context of UNICEF's latest report, which ranked Ireland 19th of 21 industrialised countries for its proportion of children who experience hardship. Some 100,000 children in this State live in poverty, with 300,000 people living in consistent poverty.

Statistics show that eradication of inequality has not been a priority for the Government. The Minister may indicate it is being slowly eroded but why should this be so? Why can the problem not be transformed overnight if resources are there?

Like James Connolly, my party would have no sympathy with those who measure a nation's prosperity by the volume of wealth produced there instead of the distribution of that wealth among the population. Although the Bill includes a welcome increase in child benefit, an important payment for tackling poverty, it is no longer universal and payment is discriminatory. With the habitual residency condition in place, families which do not qualify and live a vulnerable existence — those in most need of many such payments — are negatively affected.

This condition discriminates against families where parents are not permitted to work. These include people awaiting decisions on their application for residency; those undocumented where employers fail to pay social insurance and tax; and people working in the State for less than two years who cannot show previous EU employment. Many of these people, working in the black economy or the construction industry, do not have proof of employment.

Although the Government has professed that tackling poverty is a major issue, it is now complicit in discriminating against certain children whose parents do not qualify for payments. On one hand, the Government has claimed to be lifting children out of poverty but, on the other, it drives other children into poverty. The Government has paid lip-service to ensuring that all children are equal but it is clear some are more equal than others.

Article 26 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the Government is a signatory, declares: "States Parties shall recognize for every child the right to benefit from social security, including social insurance, and shall take the necessary measures to achieve the full realization of this right in accordance with their national law." My understanding is that the discriminatory practices of the Government are in direct contradiction of this statement. This view is supported by the Free Legal Aid Centres' call for universal child benefit to be restored as a matter of urgency.

A certain group of children should not be paying the price for immigration policy. As FLAC rightly pointed out, with families in a variety of situations who cannot meet the habitual residency condition, being prevented from receiving child benefit can be the difference between having shoes or a warm coat for children or not having them.

There has been much hype over the proposed referendum to enshrine children's rights in the Constitution but I pose the question of whether the Government wants to ensure the right of all children residing here to live free from poverty, another form of abuse. If the Government does, it should once again make child benefit universal.

I reiterate Sinn Féin's position on the guardians' payment. The Government has refused to recognise the reality that many guardians are grandparents, aunts and uncles of children whose parents have succumbed to drug addiction. Children are left in a state of limbo in that grandparents and extended families, often living on limited resources and low income, look after the welfare of the child while the State refuses payments due to the child because of unworkable criteria relating to parental abandonment. Sinn Féin would increase the guardian payment to the level of foster care allowance while reforming the abandonment criteria for grandparents. They would receive benefits even if they did not agree the child in question had been abandoned.

Section 35 of the Bill deals with the rent supplement and I am aware proposals for reforming the one-parent family payment are ongoing. It is recognised that the loss of rent supplement is proving a disincentive for those unemployed lone parents who take up employment. Sinn Féin believes lone parents should be able to keep their rent supplement for at least the first three years of full-time work and continually if in part-time employment. Any form of coercing lone parents into work is wrong. Education, training and child care issues must be addressed as a priority for any reform of this payment.

In a reply to a parliamentary question on 14 December last, the Minister proposed bringing forward enabling legislation to give effect to the transfer of community welfare officers and superintendents in time for the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2007, with the transfer taking place as soon as possible thereafter. No agreement has been made with the unions or members with regard to the transfer and community welfare officers are concerned they will be taken from disadvantaged communities, where they provide an invaluable service. There are also fears their discretionary powers will be lost. Will the Minister provide an update on the transfer as many people have been kept in the dark long enough?

I welcome the enhancement of employees' rights, particularly with regard to entitlements to pensions. However, current pension policy is neither equitable nor progressive, particularly as it is failing low-paid workers and women. Irish pensions are paid at low rates compared to European norms and we must do more to keep retired workers out of poverty. We should respect and appropriately reward contributions made by such people during their working lives by increasing pension rates to levels allowing not only income security, but a decent standard of living.

The current public pension arrangements are also deficient in that they discriminate against women. They generally tend to have lesser entitlements to contributory pensions because they are more likely to have less than complete social insurance records due to the time spent working in the home. The home workers' disregard scheme is not a sufficient remedy. The work of homemakers should not be devalued and should allow entitlement to contributory pensions for those involved. The current system also prevents older women from enjoying economic independence. It is Sinn Féin's view that unpaid work in the home is still work and women pensioners deserve equity.

Sinn Féin is committed to an equitable pension policy based on social insurance and complemented by social assistance. We wish to see all pensioners retired with financial security and dignity. The welfare of pensioners, rather than the welfare of institutional or stock markettraders, should be at the heart of a pensions policy.

I welcome the Minister's proposed changes but we should take them in the context of so many people out there who still live in poverty. It is a missed opportunity because of the finances available to us. Children in some of the poorest one-parent families will benefit from changes but not to the extent outlined by the Minister. There must be a dedicated effort to approve high-quality child care throughout the State.

Debate adjourned.